Atheists in Egypt are on the rise — and assertively pushing their way into the country’s political debates
By Khaled Diab
Is Egypt going through a crisis of faith? During my recent visit to Egypt, I met so many non-believers that it was almost tempting to think that atheism has become the country’s fastest-growing “religion.” In addition, atheists are becoming more confident, assertive and outspoken.
This, for example, is reflected in the daring decision by a group of atheists to submit publicly their demands for the complete secularization of the state — something Islamists, especially ultra-conservative Salafists, passionately oppose — to the committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
On a personal level, though I have written about my loss of faith for years in Western publications, I recently “came out” as an atheist/agnostic in an Egyptian newspaper, and the reaction of readers and social media was surprisingly warm and positive.
This conflicts with the mainstream Western view of Arab/Islamic religiosity and fanaticism in which such a confession of faithlessness should have led to a fatwa against me and even my death. But, as I pointed out in my piece, non-believers have always been an integral component of Egyptian society and, after being driven more underground in recent years, atheists have recently been making their presence felt.
How exactly did this occur?
“I reckon the reasons behind the rise in the number of atheists in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith merchants, because people uncovered their lies,” Bassem, an old friend of mine, opined in a Cairo club where we had just watched the World Cup’s curse of the Pharaohs’ afflict Egypt on the soccer pitch yet again.
As I mulled over his point, I was struck that, by pure coincidence, the friends who had gathered round the table were almost all non-believers of one stripe or another.
“I’ve heard many people talking about the rise in the number of atheists and I also heard some Egyptian thinkers say it on talk shows, so I assumed that the lies of the Salafis and the Brotherhood’s leaders were behind this,” Bassem elaborated.